Thursday, January 25, 2018

album review: 'poet|artist' by JONGHYUN

So I knew that as soon as I even referenced k-pop as a possibility in my Resonators series, it would be only a matter of time before a k-pop album showed up on my schedule - frankly, I'm surprised it hasn't been sooner, given the genre's devout fanbase. And yet there's a part of me that wishes it wasn't this record to start things off.

Some context, for those who don't know: JONGHYUN, the stage name of Kim Jong-Hyun, was formerly a member of the massive k-pop boy band SHINee, who blew up in the late 2000s blending in elements of contemporary R&B into the traditional boy band stock type. But it didn't surprise me when JONGHYUN started releasing solo projects - he was considered the lead of SHINee and having revisited those solo compilations and debut album, I can see why he had potential. As much as SHINee has embraced elements of more reserved j-pop to flesh out their sound, JONGHYUN was just as reserved and tasteful, pivoting into the sort of mid-2000s R&B that you'd hear from a guy like Ne-Yo or maybe Usher, albeit preferring more grooves driven off of warmer acoustic instrumentation or touches of lush 90s R&B or even g-funk. Even if the writing that I could translate didn't really wow me, I thought this guy had talent, he could have certainly been a solo success story in k-pop...

And I say 'could have' because in December of 2017, JONGHYUN died of toxic smoke inhalation in a death that's widely been considered a suicide, something that deeply shook idol culture in South Korea and provided another serious note in the conversation about the hyper-competitive nature of the k-pop industry. And thus covering this record, which was to be released in January 2018 with writing, production, and promotion nearly done before JONGHYUN's death... well, it's awkward. Hell, all posthumous records are, and I wouldn't cover this as a matter of principle if I felt that the money from it was going to anyone beyond JONGHYUN's family to create a foundation, which it is. So, was this a proper send-off?

So here's the frustrating thing with Poet|Artist - there's a part of me that really doesn't want to have to consider this as a 'posthumous' record, mostly because from the lyrics I could translate it doesn't feel like one. It's not like Blackstar where David Bowie was acutely aware his death was coming, or like One More Light where on retrospect Chester Bennington's lyrics pick up a striking, almost haunting quality. Poet|Artist, on the other hand... it feels like the next natural stepping stone in the career of a k-pop artist going solo, updating the 90s and 2000s R&B textures to those of the 2010s to mixed degrees of success. And you'd be reaching to say that from this record you could have seen anything coming, which left a strange listening experience to someone who was at most a casual fan... just dejected and kind of sad that he never had the chance to refine his potential.

Because make no mistake, JONGHYUN had real potential as a singer and solo act, eschewing much of the garish technocolour flash of modern k-pop for something more measured and mature, and when this record plays into that and his knack for groove and flow, it led to the sort of pop-R&B that you could easily see matching anything from Ne-Yo or current day Usher, along with a breathy but clear falsetto that could easily put Chris Brown to shame. And that's important to emphasize: for as much many of the tones production on this record would fit on mainstream radio, JONGHYUN didn't need to rely on gratuitous autotune beyond some tight multi-tracking, to the point where we get the hollowed-out modern deep house tones of 'Rewind' with thicker reverb, it doesn't nearly play to his strengths and really sticks out like a sore thumb on this album in comparison with the elegant guitarwork on 'Take The Dive' and 'Just For a Day', late 80s new jack swing behind 'Sightseeing', or very gentle smooth jazz touches in the piano lines on 'Sentimental' and especially 'Before Our Spring', which is just a beautifully poignant way to end the album. Granted, the larger instrumental direction of Poet|Artist is an update of the sound for something that would fit the modern mainstream, and while there's no interjected rap verses to fit with the liquid, somewhat desaturated synths and percussion cribbed either from modern electronic music or trap, with skittering snares, handclaps, snaps, and fizzy beats, with this production sheen you could imagine this playing on mainstream radio. Hell, with the modern-sounding hollow keys, choppy vocal mix and knock of the slightly muffled beat on 'Only One You Need' or the layered snap and firmer synth bass on 'I'm So Curious', you could give this to modern EDM producers and it'd fit just fine - they don't quite work as well on the bassy, drippy trap knock of 'Grease', but that's more because the choppy triplet flows don't give him the same room he can command so effectively. Granted, on the flipside you get '#Hashtag', with its very brittle snap, faint groove and minimalist keys where the flow almost didn't connect for me if it wasn't for that slight hint of guitar filling out some background detail.

Incidentally, that was a song that was getting some press ahead of time for its songwriting, mostly for what seemed like JONGHYUN taking gossip and social media to task for inflating minor things - and yeah, it's modestly clever especially with the extended waffle metaphor, but this is where my limitations as a critic come sharply into view. Because here's the thing: I don't speak Korean or Japanese, I'm relying on translations wherever I can find them, and thus there's bound to be some notes of poetry that just doesn't translate outside of the native language - even though I can often get a rough gist whenever we get the few lines of English thrown in. With that being said... I find it hard to consider most of the songwriting great or complex, but if I'm comparing it to the EDM-leaning side of American dance-pop, this would fit right in. That said, there are definitely songs that reflect a more thoughtful or even sour side to his music, from the jabs against conformity on 'Sightseeing' to the petulant, broken relationship scene in 'Grease' - 'Just For A Day' and 'Sentimental' both get close to this territory but thankfully steer away as the post-breakup anger and angst feels pretty well balanced. But the track that easily deserves the most praise is 'Before Our Spring', the closer, showing how he desperately wants to build or rebuild some connection with this girl before time has them all move on, but he fears the darker pangs of depression and sadness will be contagious to them both and is afraid to bring her close - wistful and intimate and achingly sad, it's really the only way a record like this could end, but it does so with real gentle grace.

So at the end of the day... look, I'll freely admit I'm not much of a k-pop fan, but if I was, an act like JONGHYUN would be one I'd like, a little more subtle and restrained with good taste in production and above average writing. It's a damn shame he passed away so young with so much potential, and while I'm not going to say this is precisely great, there's enough charm, charisma, variety and flair to make it an easy record to like. For me, it's a very light 7/10 - I'm probably a little cooler on this compared to She Is or his compilations, mostly because I like more of that old-school flavor, but for an modern American audience, this is a pretty damn accessible listen, and might just serve as a decent entry to k-pop. For me, it got there - check it out.

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